The 1948 Australian Communist Uprising
By Chris Oakley
There could hardly have been a more unlikely battleground in the Cold War than Australia. In fact, it has for most of its history proven barren soil for those trying to instill the ideals of Marxism in its citizens. Yet during the summer and fall of 1948, while most of the superpowers’ attention was focused on the Berlin crisis in Europe, the Communist Party of Australia was doing its level best to exploit the political and social tensions over prime minister and Labour Party leader Ben Chifley’s planned nationalization of the country’s banks to sow the seeds of a Marxist-Leninist uprising among the masses. They resented Labour’s insistence on identifying itself as the party of Australia’s working class, and they were anxious to knock it off that perch by any means they could-- even if it meant touching off a civil war.
CPA general secretary Lance Sharkey was no stranger to conflict, having ousted his predecessor J.B. Miles in a hard-fought campaign for the job. And the party as a whole was at the peak of its political strength at the time Sharkey and his inner circle began laying the foundations for what would eventually become known as the September Revolt. Though initially they had aimed to topple Chifley’s government by means of nationwide strikes and anti-Labour propaganda, by June of 1948 the majority of the CPA leadership had made up their minds to overthrow the Labour PM by force of arms.
About a month later their planned revolution caught the attention of the NVKD station chief in Canberra, who quickly cabled agency head Lavrenti Beria for instructions as to how he and his agents should deal with the impending uprising. Beria instructed him to do nothing just yet, merely to watch and wait-- the NKVD boss was concerned that the supposed CPA insurrection plan might just as easily turn out to be merely a front for the CIA to nab Soviet agents in Australia.
But with or without Soviet assistance, Sharkey made it plain to his comrades that he would do whatever it took to knock Ben Chifley out of power...
The plans for the assault on Parliament House in Canberra had been worked out to the last detail. Four fire sections would converge on the building, two mounting a frontal assault while the other two would storm the complex from the rear; once inside, all four of them would strike swiftly to take out Parliament’s security and police contingents. After the building was secured, one section would arrest Chifley and his cabinet while the remaining three moved to seize the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Three reserve fire sections would be deployed to thwart any attempt by the troops at the RAA1 barracks down the road or the men at Duntroon Army College to eject CPA insurgents from the building. Last but not least, Sharkey himself would lead a party of armed men to occupy the Sydney headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to make a radio announcement proclaiming the establishment of a new Communist government in Australia.
In early August of 1948 Sharkey contacted the Soviet embassy in Canberra to make discreet inquiries about the possibility of NKVD assistance in the upcoming rebellion. The NKVD station chief in Canberra promptly forward the request to Lavrenti Beria, who now began to understand the uprising plot was genuine. Unfortunately for both men, Australian security forces would soon figure this out too, and the stage would be set for one of the first major setbacks to the Communist bloc...
The first hint Australian intelligence got of the impending revolt came about two weeks after Sharkey contacted the Soviet embassy in Canberra. A landlady for one of the fire section leaders noticed her tenant behaving somewhat suspiciously and snuck into his house after he left for a party meeting; when she looked around, she discovered guns, ammunition, a map of Parliament House, and a coded telegram from the Soviet embassy in Canberra.2 She phoned an anonymous tip to her local police, who in turn contacted Australian intelligence officials to alert them to the potential threat.
A surveillance operation was set up to get the goods on the rest of the plotters; a mole inside the office of the Soviet ambassador to Australia monitored communications between the ambassador’s office and CPA headquarters in Sydney. Unaware that their security had been breached, Sharkey and his co-conspirators continued their preparations for the uprising.3 Meanwhile, the police and guard contingents at Parliament House made preparations of their own for stopping the insurgents while undercover Sydney cops blended in with the regular employees at ABC headquarters to take down any CPA guerrillas who tried to seize its broadcast facilities.
Ultimately, however, what truly undid the September Revolt was a simple matter of communications logistics: the sophisticated phone networks most of us now take for granted weren’t so much as a gleam in anyone’s eye in 1948. The distance between Canberra and Sydney is a very long one, and while today making phone calls from one to the other is usually an easy job, back in 1948 it was an exercise in sheer frustration that would wreak havoc on Sharkey’s attempts to coordinate the Canberra guerrillas’ operations with those of their comrades in Sydney.
On August 30th, Lance Sharkey officially announced that the Parliament House assault would take place on September 8th. This news was quickly relayed to the NKVD station chief in Canberra, and thanks to the mole the Australians had placed in the Soviet ambassador’s office Australian authorities were soon aware of it as well. The Communist Party of Australia had, without realizing it, just signed its own political death warrant.
To this day there is still raucous debate about why Australian security forces didn’t simply arrest Sharkey and his co-conspirators the minute the date of the uprising was revealed. Critics of law enforcement officials’ hesitation to promptly incarcerate the CPA guerrillas say such hesitation caused much unnecessary bloodshed and compromised the safety of Prime Minister Chifley and his cabinet. Those who defend that hesitation say there would have been bloodshed in any case and suggest that undue haste to collar the rebels might have driven the conspirators underground, possibly setting the stage for a broader, more successful Communist revolution.
On September 5th, 1948 the last of the NKVD operatives assigned to aid the CPA insurgents in their impending revolt arrived in Sydney. 72 hours later Sharkey gave his fire section leaders the code signal to begin the attack on Parliament House; within minutes after the signal was issued, Parliament House’s police and guard details went on full alert while Prime Minister Chifley and his cabinet were evacuated to the Lodge.4
No sooner had the first two fire sections and their NKVD backups reached Parliament House than they came under withering gunfire from the building’s defenders. The second two fire sections fared even worse, going down in a hail of machine gun bullets before they had time to aim their own weapons. Within a matter of minutes, the surviving rebels and their Soviet cohorts were forced to take shelter behind an improvised barricade.
The three fire sections assigned to hit the nearby RAA barracks and Duntroon had their own troubles, being pinned down not only by RAA troops but also by shotgun-toting local civilians who’d gotten wind of the CPA coup attempt via radio news broadcasts and decided they weren’t going to stand for it. Sharkey’s meticulously planned rebellion was turning into, literally, a bloody fiasco...
Back at CPA headquarters in Sydney, Sharkey listened with growing agitation to an operator telling him that she was unable to put through his call to the party office in Canberra. It was only 2:27 PM local time, less than 90 minutes after the first shots had been fired at Parliament House, but the September Revolt was already falling apart at the seams. The remnants of the three fire sections assigned to hit the Canberra RAA barracks and Duntroon Army College were being forced to retreat through the Jerrabomberra Wetlands towards Fisher; the survivors of the ill-fated assault on Parliament House and their NKVD backups were surrounded by an ever-tightening police cordon.
Sharkey was faced with three stark and equally unpleasant options: proceed with the strike on ABC headquarters in hopes of salvaging something from the failure of the other attacks, which meant he might get killed; flee the country, which would in the eyes of many of his fellow Communists make him a coward; or surrender to the authorities, which all but guaranteed a conviction and hanging for treason. The CPA boss chose the first option, and gathered the men he’d chosen for his assault party around him to begin making their way towards’ ABC’s main broadcast studios.
When they got to those studios, however, they found some unpleasant surprises waiting for them-- namely the undercover detectives Sydney police had planted there several weeks before. Before they could move a muscle, Sharkey and his men were disarmed and arrested; by 4:00 PM they’d all been taken to prison, where they learned that the last of the Parliament House insurgents had been killed by Canberra police.
The September Revolt had been a failure... and a catastrophic failure at that.
Those NKVD agents who hadn’t been killed or arrested went to ground as fast as they could, waiting for the opportunity to escape. The Soviet ambassador to Australia was summoned to the Australian foreign minister’s office and bluntly informed that he had been declared persona non grata in Australia, as had the Canberra NKVD station chief; both men were given twelve hours to leave the country or else be subject to arrest on charges of espionage and aiding and abetting terrorism.
At 6:15 that night Prime Minister Chifley made a special radio address from the Lodge to assure the public that the crisis was over and the CPA rebellion plot had been effectively crushed. He also made the announcement that he was scrapping most of the nationalization programs he had been planning to institute in the coming months; while this decision cost him some support within his own party, it helped remove a weapon from the hands of his political enemies.
Two weeks after his failed attempt to overthrow the Chifley government, Lance Sharkey was formally charged on eight criminal counts including treason, sedition, and illegal possession of a firearm.5 His would be the first of dozens of trials stemming from the September Revolt; it would also provide a rough draft of the kind of media saturation that pervades certain criminal trials today. The Sharkey trial dominated newspaper headlines and radio newscasts in Australia for weeks, particularly in Sydney, where the trial was being held.6
Just before Christmas Eve Sharkey was convicted on all eight counts against him. A month later, he was sentenced to death by hanging; relatives and colleagues of the security people killed in the Parliament House assault gathered in Canberra’s St. Paul Anglican Church the next day to participate in a special memorial service honoring all those who’d sacrificed their lives to prevent the Communists from taking over Australia.
By the time that Sharkey was hanged on March 10th, 1950 along with two of his co-conspirators in the September Revolt the Communist Party of Australia had become a political dead letter. Even the most diehard leftists were tripping over their own feet to disassociate themselves from the CPA; J.B. Miles was telling anyone who’d listen that he had sternly disapproved of the insurrection plot from the beginning and tried to use his influence in the party to stop it before it started. Recruiting new members was all but impossible, and old members were abandoning the party in droves.
For Lavrenti Beria, the failure of the September Revolt would spell the end of his career as head of the NVKD. In Stalin’s eyes Beria had been embarrassingly indiscreet in his handling of the CPA uprising, and such indiscretion could not be tolerated if Soviet interests in the Far East were to be served; Beria was summarily dismissed and spent the rest of his life in exile in Siberia, dying from tuberculosis in 1952.
Australia’s government became even more overtly anti-Communist than it had been in the past; indeed, right about the same time as the Sharkey trial, Australia began to experience its own version of the McCarthyist "Red Scare" that would later sweep the United States. The Australian Senate formed a special committee charged with rooting out leftist insurrection plots like the September Revolt conspiracy; from November of 1948 until its disbanding in June of 1955, the so- called Special Council on Anti-Subversion Affairs investigated almost 50,000 people, many of whom would later turn out to have no ties at all to any kind of subversive activity. The controversy which the Special Council’s activities caused is believed by some to have been a factor in the decision of 22 countries to boycott the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne.
Non-Communist left-wing political parties were shorn of much of their influence in the aftermath of the September Revolt and would not begin to regain it until the early 1980s; accordingly, many of the causes they had championed, like aboriginal civil rights and defense spending reduction, would suffer greatly. Indeed, some of these parties are still trying to recover from the stigma of guilt by association, however brief or tenuous, with the CPA.7
In the years following the September Revolt, Australia’s armed forces would figure prominently in a host of so-called "brushfire wars" against Communist-backed insurgencies around the world. They were one of the first foreign troop contingents to go into Korea with the UN when Kim Il Sung’s Communist regime in the North attacked the Syngman Rhee-governed South in 1950. They assisted the British in crushing the Marxist-backed 1948-60 Malayan uprising. In Vietnam, the Australian expeditionary force to that country was so large its troop numbers were surpassed only by those of the United States.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the September Revolt in 1988, the Australian federal government unveiled a marble statue outside Parliament House in Canberra; taken from a famous Sydney Morning Herald front page photograph of the Parliament House assault, it shows an RAA medic tending to a wounded comrade; the look of sorrow on the medic’s face is an apt symbol for the psychological and spiritual burden Australians still carry nearly sixty years after the CPA uprising.
1Royal Australian Army.
2When deciphered, it was revealed to be a message from the Canberra NKVD station chief promising that agents would be infiltrating Australia in cells of two or three to provide extra fire support for Sharkey’s insurgents.
3There had also been plans to storm the governor-general’s residence, but they were soon scrapped, which was just as well given how the Parliament House attack turned out.
4The residence of the Australian prime minister.
5The gun that Sharkey brought with him on his failed attempt to storm the ABC main broadcast studios had been fraudulently obtained.
6Most of Sharkey’s co-conspirators were tried in Canberra.
7Since the Communist Party of Australia was formally dissolved in 1949, there have been no serious attempts to revive it. A brief effort to organize a so-called "Socialist Unity Party" in the late 1970s fell apart when two of the founders of the stillborn movement were found to have personal ties to one of Lance Sharkey’s co-conspirators in the September Revolt.